Kinnell, Galway

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Nationality: American. Born: Providence, Rhode Island, 1 February 1927. Education: Princeton University, New Jersey, A.B. 1948; University of Rochester, New York, M.A. 1949. Military Service: U.S. Navy, 1945–46. Family: Married 1) Inés Delgado de Torres in 1965 (divorced 1984), one daughter and one son, 2) Barbara K. Bristol in 1998. Career: Instructor in English, Alfred University, New York, 1949–51; supervisor of liberal arts program, University of Chicago, 1951–55; American Lecturer, University of Grenoble, 1956–57; Summer session lecturer, University of Nice, 1957; Fulbright Lecturer, University of Iran, Tehran, 1959–60; poet-in-residence/visiting writer, Juniata College, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, 1964, Reed College, Portland, Oregon, 1966–67, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, 1968, University of Washington, Seattle, 1968, University of California, Irvine, 1968–69, Deya Institute, Mallorca, 1969–70, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1970, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1972–78, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1976, Holy Cross College, 1977, and Macquarie University, Sydney, 1979; visiting professor, Pittsburgh Poetry Forum, 1971, Queens College, New York, 1971, Columbia University, New York, 1972, 1974, 1976, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1974, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1975, University of Delaware, Newark, 1978, and University of Hawaii, Manoa, Honolulu, 1979–80; DeRoy Honors Professor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1987. Since 1979 director, Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Erich Maria Remarque Professor of creative writing, New York University. Awards: Ford grant, 1955; Fulbright scholarship, 1955; Longview Foundation award, 1962; American Academy grant, 1962, and Medal of Merit, 1976; Guggenheim fellowship, 1963, 1974; Bess Hokin prize, 1965, and Eunice Tietjens memorial prize, 1966 (Poetry, Chicago); Rockefeller grant, 1967; Cecil Hemley prize, 1968; Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1968; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1969; Ingram Merrill Foundation award, 1969; Amy Lowell traveling fellowship, 1969; Shelley memorial award, 1972; Academy of American Poets Landon translation award, 1978; American Book award, 1983; Pulitzer Prize, 1983; MacArthur fellowship, 1984. Member, American Academy, 1981. Address: Sheffield, Vermont 05866, U.S.A.



What a Kingdom It Was. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1964.

Poems of Night. London, Rapp and Carroll, 1968.

Body Rags. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1968; London, Rapp and Whiting, 1969.

Far Behind Me on the Trail. New York, Profile Press, 1969.

The Hen Flower. Frensham, Surrey, Sceptre Press, 1970.

First Poems 1946–1954. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1970.

The Book of Nightmares. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1971; London, J. Jay, 1978.

The Shoes of Wandering. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1971.

The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World: Poems 1946–1964. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Three Poems. New York, Phoenix Book Shop, 1976.

Brother of My Heart. Canberra, Open Door Press, 1977.

Fergus Falling. Newark, Vermont, Janus Press, 1979.

There Are Things I Tell to No One. New York, Nadja, 1979.

Two Poems. Newark, Vermont, Janus Press, 1979.

Mortal Acts, Mortal Words. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

The Last Hiding Places of Snow. New York, Red Ozier Press, 1980.

Angling, A Day, and Other Poems. Concord, New Hampshire, William B. Ewert, 1980.

Selected Poems. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1982; London, Secker and Warburg, 1984.

Woodsmen. Riverside, California, Rara Avis Press, 1982.

The Fundamental Project of Technology. Concord, New Hampshire, Ewert, 1983.

The Seekonk Woods. Concord, New Hampshire, Ewert, 1985.

The Past. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1985; London, Secker and Warburg, 1986.

When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

Three Books. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Imperfect Thirst. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

A New Selected Poems. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Recordings: Today's Poets 5, with others, Folkways; The Poetry and Voice of Galway Kinnell, Caedmon, 1976.


Black Light. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1966; London, Hart Davis, 1967; revised edition, Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1980; Paris, Mercure de France, 1994.


3 Self-Evaluations, with Anthony Ostroff and Winfield Townley Scott. Beloit, Wisconsin, Beloit Poetry Journal, 1953.

The Poetics of the Physical World. Fort Collins, Colorado State University, 1969.

Walking Down the Stairs: Selections from Interviews. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1978.

How the Alligator Missed Breakfast (for children). Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1982.

Thoughts Occasioned by the Most Insignificant of Human Events. Concord, New Hampshire, Ewert, 1982.

The Fundamental Project of Technology. Concord, New Hampshire, Ewert, 1983.

Remarks on Accepting the American Book Award. Concord, New Hampshire, Ewert, 1984.

Editor, The Essential Whitman. New York, Ecco Press, 1987.

Translator, Bitter Victory, by Réne Hardy. New York, Doubleday, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1956.

Translator, Pre-Columbian Ceramics, by Henri Lehmann. London, Elek, 1962.

Translator, The Poems of François Villon. New York, New American Library, 1965.

Translator, On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, by Yves Bonnefoy. Athens, Ohio University Press, 1968.

Translator, The Lackawanna Elegy, by Yvan Goll. Fremont, Michigan, Sumac Press, 1970.

Translator, The Poems of François Villon. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Translator, Poems, by Villon. Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1982.

Translator, with Hannah Liebmann, The Essential Rilke. New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1999.


Bibliography: Galway Kinnell: A Bibliography and Index of His Published Works and Criticism of Them, Potsdam, New York, State University College Frederick W. Crumb Memorial Library, 1968; by William B. Ewert and Barbara A. White, in American Book Collector (Arlington Heights, Illinois), July/August 1984.

Manuscript Collections: Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington; Dimond Library, University of New Hampshire, Durham.

Critical Studies: Intricate and Simple Things: The Poetry of Galway Kinnell by Lee Zimmerman, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1987; On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell edited by Howard Nelson, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1988; Galway Kinnell by Richard J. Calhoun, New York, Twayne, 1992; "Galway Kinnell: A Voice to Lead Us" by Karen Maceira, in Hollins Critic (Hollins College, Virginia), 32(4), October 1995; Critical Essays on Galway Kinnell edited by Nancy Lewis Tuten, New York, Hall, 1996, and "The Language of Sexuality: Walt Whitman and Galway Kinnell" by Tuten, in Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (Iowa City, Iowa), 9(3), Winter 1992; "Poetry, Personality and Wholeness: A Response to Galway Kinnell" by Adrienne Rich, in A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, edited by Stuart Friebert, David Walker, and David Young, Oberlin, Ohio, Oberlin College, 1997; "Thoreau and Galway Kinnell: Self-Exile and the Need for Human Interaction" by Anne E. Van Dyke, in The Image of Class in Literature, Media, and Society, edited by Will Wright and Steven Kaplan, Pueblo, Colorado, University of Southern Colorado Press, 1998; On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages of Dying, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1999.

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Galway Kinnell's poems attempt to strike a delicate and unique balance among the urge to express the emotions of the private self, the need to identify with the creatures of the natural world, the wish to take a stance on public issues, and the obligation to discover a means of understanding the mortality of all creatures. Kinnell has been able to maintain this balance by developing an idiom that is carefully controlled. Precise language and spare, exact imagery characterize his poems.

Like many of his contemporaries, Kinnell has attempted to develop the poetic explorations of Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke in order to learn how the breakthroughs of these poets could form a basis for a poetry that served the needs of the final third of the twentieth century. His own innovations have led him to abandon the intricate, allusive, and sometimes dense structures that characterized the works of the school of Eliot and Pound. His poems have avoided studied ambiguity, and he has risked directness of address, precision of imagery, and experiments with surrealistic situations and images.

The first two collections, First Poems, 1946–1954 and What a Kingdom It Was, employed intricate, traditional rhyme schemes, a practice Kinnell increasingly abandoned in subsequent works. Like most of the later poems, these works exhibit a narrative impulse and a preference for simple, uncluttered diction. Two of the best early poems, "First Song" and "To Christ Our Lord," employ the objectivity of narrative enhanced by rhyme to brilliant effects. Both are initiation poems. "First Song" tells the story of an Illinois farm boy who, after a day's demeaning labor, hears the frogs sing in a nearby pond. Joined by two neighbors, the boy accompanies the frogs' song with a primitive homemade instrument. The music they make, accompanying the natural creatures, becomes for the boy his first intimation of the connectedness of the human and the natural world, a theme Kinnell continues to explore in all of his poetry:

   And into the dark in spite of a shoulder's ache
   A boy's hunched body loved out of a stalk
   The first song of his happiness, and the song woke
   His heart into the darkness and into the sadness of joy.

This awakening, presented simply and directly, initiates the youth into the ambiguity that for Kinnell characterizes the human condition. The darkness becomes symbolic of our being surrounded by death, and the joy the youth learns depends on its opposite, sadness. The paradox is elementary, but it promises the thematic richness Kinnell's poems develop.

A more extended and rewarding treatment of the theme energizes "To Christ Our Lord." This brief narrative deals with the tension between a Christian and a Darwinian perception of the world as experienced by a young boy. Obliged to kill a bird for Christmas dinner, the boy cannot resolve his feeling of the sacredness of the life of the bird with his animal need to kill in order to live. The snow yields tracks of elk and wolves, and so the message of nature is that we must kill in order to survive. After the bird has been cooked, his family approves his action: "Now the grace praised his wicked act." The boy cannot reconcile this praise from his family with the guilt he felt when he shot the creature:

   He had not wanted to shoot. The sound
   Of wings beating into the hushed air
   Had stirred his love, and his fingers
   Froze in his gloves, and he wondered,
   Famishing, could he fire? Then he fired.

The poem ends on an ambivalent note. The boy goes out after dinner and experiences a vision in which the constellation Swan becomes an emblem for the bird he killed and the Savior whose birth the day celebrates: "Then the Swan spread her wings, cross of the cold north, / The pattern and mirror of the acts of earth." The boy feels the intuition of the spiritual presence in creation, but this intuition does not cancel out the need to prey on the creatures so that man may survive.

Kinnell's work does not provide easy answers, because his work has led him to distrust simple answers to complex problems. He writes effective poems about animals in order to explore the complex relations we form with creation. Two of his frequently anthologized poems, "The Bear" and "The Porcupine," employ a flexible narrative form to deal with the same theme. Of these animals, Kinnell once told an interviewer, "I've wanted to see them in themselves and also to see their closeness to us." Each poem is organized around a movement from violence on the animal to identification with the animal as the victim of human cruelty. "The Porcupine" vividly describes the shooting of the creature and its painful, prolonged death. As the poem ends, the speaker experiences imaginative empathy with the porcupine's suffering and recognizes that it is a "blank / template of myself."

"The Bear" treats even more directly the process by which the killer becomes empathic with his victim. The speaker, an Eskimo, tells of his deliberate and brutal strategy to kill a bear. He sharpened a wolf's rib and hid it in blubber; when the bear ate the blubber, the rib punctured the lining of its stomach. Thus began a death that lasted seven days. The hunter follows the bear these seven days, "living by now on bear blood alone," finds the dead bear, and disembowels it. To protect himself against the cold, he crawls inside the carcass, where he has a dream of total identification with the sufferings of this bear, a predicament the speaker has himself created. Awakening, the Eskimo is changed by the experience of his cruelty to nature and is therefore able to sympathize with the life cycle of man's victims.

Kinnell's longer poems address the problem of finding personal integrity in a world torn by secularism, war, and the loss of the ideal of human justice. These poems, beginning with "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World" and continuing through the book-length The Book of Nightmares, employ a distinctive meditational structure composed of a variety of spatially or sequentially superimposed images. "The Avenue" contains fourteen unequal sections, most of which are images and impressions of the despair of the old, blacks, Puerto Ricans, Jews, bag ladies, and vendors who inhabit Avenue C in New York City. The background for these impressions is the Holocaust. The epigraph, which is in German, recalls the gas ovens, and section 11 contains a form letter mailed by the commandant of one of the death camps. The point of the association of the death camps with Avenue C is that each represents the failed promise of human society. The camps were intentional violations of that promise, whereas Avenue C represents an accidental violation. The poor and despairing on Avenue C suffer and die because of neglect: "The promise was broken too freely / To them and their fathers, for them to care."

Effective imagery communicates directly the frustrations of these forgotten citizens, whose only deliverance is death. Even death is denied the metaphysical consolation it held for Walt Whitman, but the poem echoes "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" to remind us that in the comprehensive world Whitman loved death was completion and deliverance:

   Maybe it is as the poet said,
   And the soul turns to thee
   O vast and well-veiled Death
   And the body gratefully nestles close to thee—

The consolation is less convincing than it was to Whitman, and for the victims of "this God-forsaken Avenue bearing the initial of Christ / Through the haste and carelessness of the ages," death is less a transcendence than an escape.

Mortality is also the concern of The Book of Nightmares, a work composed of ten related poems, each in turn containing seven sections. This carefully crafted work addresses the poet's children and constitutes an inspiring effort to explain human mortality to those we bring into this world of suffering and death. Echoing Wordsworth ironically, the poet explains his infant daughter's waking fears:

   And yet perhaps this is the reason you cry,
   this is the nightmare you wake from:
   being forever
   in the pre-trembling of a house that falls.

The child's intimations of mortality cannot be answered, and they actually intensify the poet's own anxiety. The dilemma of existence cannot be resolved, but the book is an effort to provide at least an alternative. Love is Kinnell's answer to mortality, but love means confronting the facts of physical existence directly and honestly. To his daughter he offers the legacy of honest modern parents: "And then [when she is reminded of her mortality] / you shall open / this book, even if it is the book of nightmares." The mortal, loving parent cannot offer answers, but he can leave behind a legacy of love and an attempt to explain the world as it is.

At his best Kinnell is a poet who confronts the dilemma of mortality directly. His poetry communicates the urgency of love in the face of our mortality. As Kinnell says in "Good-bye," a poem addressed to his dying mother, "It is written in our hearts, the emptiness is all. / That is how we have learned, the embrace is all."

—David C. Dougherty